LeGuin Physics Bug

Since some time in the early 80s I’ve laboured delightedly and intermittently to catch up with Ursula K. LeGuins oeuvre. I’ve covered her collections of short fiction and essays, and I will soon have her novels done, leaving the poetry and short kids’ books.

Apart from her latest novel, I’ve yet to read 1980’s The Beginning Place. In fact, I’m reading it now. And it’s a good read so far, a critique of modern US society foreshadowing Always Coming Home. But there’s one curious bug in the logic.

Imagine a gate to another world. When you pass the gate your perceptions continue without break: you can move and act and take in your surroundings, you eat and shit and sleep as usual. But when you return through the gate you find that no time has passed in primary reality. This is standard fantasy fare.

Now imagine that you place a large clock outside the gate and wear a wristwatch. Entering the gate, it seems to me that your watch would continue to run during your stay in the other world, just like the machinery of your body goes on. If you observed the clock through the gate, it would seem to stand still, or no photons would reach you at all. An observer outside the gate however would see no pause in the movements of the clock: she would just see you enter the gate and then immediately exit it again.

LeGuin makes the wristwatch stop when you enter the gate, then start again when you exit. For some reason, this particular little contraption remains linked to primary reality, while her characters’ bodies do not. I’m geeky enough to find this to be an irksome blemish in the story.


  1. #1 Rettaw
    June 30, 2008

    You should file a bug report with the author and hopefully it will get fixed in the next release.

  2. #2 Flaky
    June 30, 2008

    Well, the portal itself would prove to be rather problematic. For one, there would be an extreme red/blue shift, making it impossible to see anything on the fast side and giving a high dose of gamma rays to anything near the portal on the the slow side.

    Passing through would prove to be somewhat complicated if time speed gradient is high at the portal. Basically you’d get stuck attempting to get through from fast to slow and going the other way, the parts of your body that get through first will die from lack of oxygen before the rest of your body comes through.

  3. #3 Sávon
    June 30, 2008

    It is very simple all. But you must pass under a tree that is bent down, like a bow. On the other side you have no physical needs, like shitting or eating. You eat air. Time goes on, if you stay one hour it is one hour later when you return.
    You stay for ever when you die.

  4. #4 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 1, 2008

    This reminds me of a series of posts at Cosmic Variance over time reversal in literature.
    Incompatible Arrows

  5. #5 Barbara Huffert
    July 2, 2008

    Hm, interesting. You really need to learn to suspend your analytical, scientific mind and immerse yourself thoroughly in fantasy. You’ll enjoy books like this so much more!

  6. #6 Martin R
    July 3, 2008

    Haha, yeah, fantasy made me an archaeologist, and then archaeology ruined my enjoyment of much fantasy. (-;

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